Jim Hogshire’s classic underground tome “You Are Going to Prison” has been perversely “adapted” into the fictive form of “Let’s Go to Prison.” Created by alumni of cult TV faves “Mr. Show,” “The State” and “Reno 911!,” off-kilter comedy would surely have received a drubbing (if an unearned one) had it been screened for critics. Dumped into release with zero fanfare by Universal, its theatrical career will be blip-quick. But DVD and cable shelf life should accrue a following akin to that attracted by similar deadpan bad-taste exercises “Shakes the Clown” and “Office Space.”
The 1994 Hogshire book (now very difficult to find) offered a straightforward guide to the realities of, and survival strategies for, life in U.S. lockup — old-timer’s advice to the new fish, so to speak. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michael Patrick Jann inverts that idea by focusing on a revolving-door jailbird determined to steer the newbie as far wrong as possible.
John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) has spent nearly all his life in stir — thanks, he thinks, to the pitiless Chicago judge who started handing him harsh sentences from the time of his first juvenile offense at age 8. Now 30-ish and out for the fourth time, he has only one goal in civilian life: vengeance. But that hope is thwarted when he learns the hated old man died (all too peacefully) just days before his release.
Protag decides to refocus his campaign on the man’s only son and heir, insufferable man-brat Nelson Biederman IV (“Arrested Development’s” Will Arnett). The plan is to frame Nelson and get him behind bars, where he’ll suffer all the brutalities of a system John endured. To latter’s delight, IV proves quite capable of getting himself arrested and sentenced to three to five. Feeling he won’t be satisfied unless he witnesses the gruesome aftermath first-hand, John gets himself a fresh prison term, even managing to snag Nelson as his cellmate.
John poses as the terrified newcomer’s friend and mentor while secretly ensuring that his prison existence will be as unpleasant as possible. Nelson doesn’t help his own case by making an enemy of Lynard (Michael Shannon), psycho leader of the resident white supremacist clique.
But when latter’s accidental demise makes Nelson look like the intimidating tough guy he decidedly isn’t, tables begin to turn against his scheming roomie. Not least among the reversals of fortune: John sells IV as “bitch du jour” to hulking, horny, hairy Barry (Chi McBride), which turns into something very different from the expected rape scenario — as signaled by the lusting con’s penchant for Chuck Mangione jazz-lite and his announcement “Prepare to be wooed by the master.”
“Let’s Go to Prison” feels like an overextended sketch-comedy idea insufficiently filled out by subsidiary characters (few significantly figure) or standout setpieces. The “fight-to-the-death” climax is routine, the epilogue amusing in concept but flat in execution.
Despite the seeming tastelessness of theme and many individual ideas, pic is, if anything, too low-key for mass consumption — there’s little outright hilarity here, with most of the humor a matter of sly, poker-faced performance and scene rhythms. Fans of the scenarists’ and helmer Bob Odenkirk’s TV work will “get” it; others may wonder where the funny stuff is. Unlike the vast majority of rude bigscreen comedies these days, “Prison” may actually improve with repeat viewings, since its best aspects are offhand enough to be missed the first time around.
Capable cast is headed by Shepard (“Employee of the Month”), who has a very agreeable way of making his bemused, slackerish underplaying the magnetic center of nearly every scene. His approach, and pic’s, is epitomized in a single held closing-credits shot whose serenely silly comic riffing induces a slow-burning grin rather than a big laugh.
Tech and design aspects are unspectacular but well turned.